One way to reduce the number of evictions and prevent homelessness, as discussed by a small group at the recent Who Owns Durham strategy session, is through guaranteeing access to civil justice.
Right to Counsel
Universal right to counsel, a program that ensures those involved in civil matters have access to an attorney, would be especially helpful to tenants facing eviction. There are others in the U.S. working on this, offering some data and ideas to consider.
In 2017, New York adopted a right to counsel law that provided legal representation for renters with low income who were facing eviction. San Francisco residents recently voted to approve a ballot initiative for the city to guarantee its tenants legal representation.
The Cost of Acting and Failing to Act
However, a right to counsel program doesn’t come without costs and one of the first priorities in its development is to gather data and evaluate it in order to develop a cost plan, that is, costs to the city, to landlords as well as those passed onto the tenants.
San Francisco’s costs will be significant, but may also be overshadowed by the gains.
An impartial analysis conducted by the San Francisco Controller’s office found that while the costs of Proposition F will be significant—between $4.2 and $5.6 million annually—providing universal access to civil legal services may actually save the city money. Services that keep tenants in their homes help reduce or prevent other costs such as shelters and other homeless services, the office said.1
1(2019, April 30). From the Field: San Francisco Voters Guarantee Right to Counsel for All Tenants Facing Eviction. Retrieved from https://nlihc.org/resource/field-san-francisco-voters-guarantee-right-counsel-all-tenants-facing-eviction
One of the most visible costs of evictions in Durham are the filing fees. These come out of a landlord’s pockets before getting passed on to tenants.
The personal and psychological costs to families being displaced and the damage evictions do to the communities involved are examples of those costs that are more difficult to measure and address, but equally as impactful.
While the group recognized that any plan that doesn’t address the structural inequities which lead to displacement serves as a “band-aid,” they agreed that universal right to counsel, particularly for those facing a first eviction, is one of the best ways to educate and empower tenants and significantly reduce the number of evictions.
This is part two of a four-part series that summarizes key take-aways from the June 25th strategy session of ‘Who Owns Durham.’
Strategies to Prevent Displacement Posting Series:
Part 1: Landlord Accountability
Part 2: Civil Justice
Part 3: Rent Stabilization
Part 4: Improvement of Financial Wellbeing